The Wild Side: The Christmas Bird Count
This year, for the first time in our 20-year marriage, my wife and I hosted my mom’s Christmas. It took years to coax my family members into coming to the Northwoods for their gathering. I was pleasantly surprised to see all five siblings and all their families attend our party. Since they travelled from parts of southeastern and eastern Wisconsin, many made a weekend of it. This gave us the opportunity to add on more family activities. When we were trying to decide what to fit in, I suggested we try a Christmas side hunt. My brothers couldn’t coordinate schedules well enough, though, so we went bowling instead.
The side hunt was a holiday tradition in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A group of men would come together and choose sides, then head afield and hunt for whatever wild game they could find. Whichever side harvested the most wildlife was the winner. Today, this kind of competition might seem unnecessary or even unsportsmanlike. At the time, wild game was an important additional dietary staple. People had begun to have icebox refrigeration as an option, but freezers would not become common household appliances until the 1940s. People would have to collect the meat and prepare it before it spoiled, often by drying or canning it. The cold winter temperatures would extend the meat preservation options, allowing hunters to harvest wildlife, prepare it and store it without spoiling. Hunters would clearly overharvest wildlife during this time, however.
Wildlife conservation had not really been developed as a science in the late 1800s. You have probably seen old black and white photos of several men standing next to an entire barn wall covered with rabbits, grouse, fox or other wildlife. When I worked in southwest Minnesota, the “old timers” at the local coffee shop would tell childhood stories of being runners for huge jackrabbit drives. They would slowly close a circle around a grassy meadow, pushing jackrabbits to the center, where hunters would eventually harvest every last one. I have heard or read similar stories about many different kinds of animals, from squirrels to wolves.
In the early 1900s, we as a society were becoming aware of what impacts we were having on wildlife. There were giants in early natural resource conservation that were bringing resource concerns and natural history to light, like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. We were transitioning from an era of manifest destiny and exploitation to an era of conservation, or wise use, of natural resources. These were the days of formation of the Audubon society, named after famed naturalist and artist John Audubon. One particular ornithologist, or bird scientist, named Frank Chapman came up with an idea for a conservationist alternative for the Christmas side hunt. In 1900, he and several other bird enthusiasts went out on Christmas Day and counted how many birds of every species they could find and recorded them. This was the creation of the Christmas Bird Count.
The 113th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is currently underway. Organized by the Audubon Society, the CBC is the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Volunteers of every skill level observe and record bird numbers and species in their area and submit the information to scientists who compile the information coming in from across the country. Local biologists like me find the information very useful. Every year, I log in to see how many species are counted. In the past, there was a small fee for participating, but this year for the first time, there is no cost to submit your observations. We always get a number of folks from our area participating, which is great. If you get a lot of birds coming to your feeder, or you regularly see birds while on a daily stroll, consider submitting your observations on the Audubon society website, audubon.org. The CBC runs through Jan. 5, 2013.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.